New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
With the surrender of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945, World War II had officially come to an end.
This meant that (as Tom Brokaw so eloquently coined the term) the members of “America’s Greatest Generation” would soon be returning home.
Although the first drive-in movie theater opened in Pennsauken, N.J., on June 6, 1933, drive-in movie theaters did not really begin to take off in this area of the country until after the soldiers began returning home from the war in large numbers.
Upon their return, they ushered in the Baby Boomer generation. Their interests centered on getting married, starting a family and buying an automobile.
With this as a backdrop, on April 27, 1947, Outdoor Theatre, Inc. entered into a five-year lease — with the option of automatic extension for an additional nine, five-year terms — covering 20.072 acres owned jointly by my father, Joe Aquaro; my mother, Ada Irene Aquaro; my father’s brother-in-law, Rocco Ieraci; and his wife, my father’s sister, Lucy Aquaro Ieraci.
This parcel was a large fruit tree orchard and was an integral part of approximately 96 1/2 acres they owned, bounded on the north by Route 224, on the east by what is now Interstate 376, on the south by what is now Angela Lane, and on the West by Winter Road from Angela Lane north to the storefront to the left of Keystone Rehab Systems Physical Therapy. There, the property cut in on an angle to approximately where Ruby Tuesday’s now meets Route 224.
Construction began immediately, and on Oct. 24, 1947, the grand opening of the Super Castle (drive-in) Theatre was held. As you can see from the grand opening advertisement, it referred to “Route 422.” This was a misprint. It should have read “Route 224.”
From the very beginning, the theater was a tremendous success. Everything seemed to click. Admission was 50 cents for adults, and children under 12 were admitted free. The fact that there had been this pent-up demand on the part of GI’s for an automobile, getting married and starting a family all fit neatly into the equation.
In 1947, network television was rare. Radio had been around for quite a while, and air conditioning in the home was unheard of. So, did you want to sit home in the heat of the summer listening to the radio, or did you want to hire a baby sitter and go to an indoor theater?
What many chose to do was to bathe the children, put their pajamas on, possibly pack a picnic dinner and head off to a movie under the stars in their new automobile. They would get to the theater early, let the children play in the large yard in front of the screen, enjoy their picnic dinner, then settle in to watch the movie in the cool evening breeze.
By the time the movie was over, the children were usually asleep. You could take them home and generally just place them in their bed without waking them up. By now, the temperature in the home had cooled down somewhat, making for more comfortable sleeping.
In the months that the theater was operating, the evening sky would be lit up from the neon lights. When it closed down for the winter, you would have four months of total darkness. Both extremes took a little getting used to.
MORE THAN MOVIES
On July 6, 1948, Al “Fuzzy” St. John made a personal appearance promoting his latest movie, “Law of the Lash.” The theater was packed beyond belief. They were turning so many cars away.
For his appearance, a stairway was built in the back of the concession stand up to the roof, which was used as the stage. At intermission, he arrived in this beautiful brand new Chrysler “Woodie” Town and Country convertible. He had a pair of six shooters filled with blanks and kept shooting them off. Accompanying him from Hollywood was his band, the “Sunrise Rangers.” The crowd was all gathered around the stage and he and the band performed for a long time, holding the audience spellbound.
On July 21, 1948, the theater held a “Gigantic Display of Fireworks” and again it was packed to capacity.
At some point early on, the name was changed from Outdoor Theatre, Inc. to Super Outdoor Theatres, Inc., owned and operated by James Castelli and his brother Victor Castelli, from Library and Canonsburg, respectively. They also owned and operated Super 71 Drive-In Theatre in Belle Vernon, which opened June 22, 1948. It was a two-screen theater, one accommodating 700 cars and the other 600 cars.
They apparently saw that it wasn’t necessary to continue to hold special events in order to fill the theater. Cars would begin lining up well in advance of the opening time. The line would start in front of the ticket booth and stretch all the way down the berm of the eastbound lane of Route 224, past what is today Advance Auto Parts.
The early days of the theater were not without challenges. Cars would go down Winter Road and enter the theater via a field bordering the back of the theater. Automobile undercarriages were a good bit higher in those days, making it easier than if one were to do it today.
Consequently, at the back border of the theater, a bulldozer scraped the dirt into a mound about 4 feet high so that no cars could enter via this route. That took care of that problem.
However, then there was the problem of entire families walking from Winter Road through the field and into the back of the theater, bringing chairs or wooden boxes to sit on. The owners then surrounded the theater with a cyclone fence, ending that problem.
Next, there was the problem of trunk stuffing. In order to avoid paying, people would stuff one or more persons into the trunk in order to avoid paying the 50 cents. It was like a contest to see who could hold the record for stuffing the most individuals into the trunk. It was a dead give-away when a lone individual would pull up to the ticket booth.
Finally, on Aug. 15, 1948, they implemented the policy of charging “Only $1 per car total admission.”
One summer evening, a circus was coming through town, and the owner had no place to put all the animals and circus acts up for the evening. He stopped and arranged with my father to put the circus up. My father and his brother, George, owned and operated a mink ranch. There was plenty of land and water, so it was no problem to put the circus up for the evening.
When the circus arrived and settled in, it was still daylight. There were elephants, lions, tigers, etc. Everyone in the theater saw this and a large crowd came over to see all the animals. The owner of the circus said that had he known he would have such a large audience he would have set up the tents and arranged for a complete performance before the opening of the movie.
When I awoke the next morning, the circus had already pulled out.
In 1953, the motion picture industry introduced Cinema Scope. This meant that the original screen had to be widened significantly in order to accommodate the movies now being released. In the picture accompanying this article, you can see where they widened the screen.
When the theater first opened, Berlo Vending Co. of Philadelphia was in charge of the concession operation. Later, the Castelli Brothers decided to bring the concession operation in-house. As part of the change-over, they modernized the operation. They expanded the building out on both the left and right sides and put in large glass windows and speakers so that you could watch the movie while in the concession stand.
Instead of going up to the counter to order and not being able to see or hear the movie, they converted it to cafeteria style. While you would be going through picking out what you wanted to have, you would not be missing any of the movie.
Around 1965, outdoor movie theaters began to lose their appeal and that was also the case with the Super Castle. You now had color television, first-run, made-for-television movies, central air conditioning, and the children of “America’s Greatest Generation” were now adults. While the thrill of the automobile was still there, it was not like it was when the GI’s were coming back from the War.
On Jan. 23, 1970, the state highway department announced that Pennsylvania Route 60 (now Interstate 376) would be coming through a portion of my family’s 96 1/2 acres. This spelled the end for the Super Castle. The picture that accompanies this article shows our home and the screen just before the bulldozers began tearing them down. Our home sat approximately where First Commonwealth Bank sits today and the theater was just to the right of where the bank is located.
Subsequently, Agway Inc. bought a portion of the remaining property, but they never built on it. Later, all the property, including the portion that Agway had bought, was purchased by the developers of Union Square and Maple Heights Apartments and Condos. Today, these facilities occupy the entire property.
(David Aquaro is a Neshannock Township resident whose family owned the site of the former Super Castle drive-in theater).